As the final phase nears completion early this year, the Robotics Technology Park (RTP) in north Alabama remains the only facility of its kind in the world, according to Rick Maroney, project manager.
“It’s a benchmark for every state in the U.S., ” Maroney says. “All of our vendors tell us there’s nothing else like it in the world.”
The RTP is a collaboration between the state of Alabama, Alabama Community College System, AIDT and robotics industry leaders across the nation and world. The RTP consists of three training facilities, each targeted to a specific industry need. Located across the highway from the Calhoun Community College campus in Limestone County, the three buildings and the equipment they house represent an investment of approximately $73 million.
“It is 100 percent industry driven, ” Maroney says. “What our industries here in Alabama need is what they get.”
The RTP’s mission is to provide a technically trained and highly skilled workforce for automation and robotics. It assists public and private entities in developing new robotics systems and technologies and promotes the creation, growth or expansion of companies through innovative technology solutions.
When Phase 3 is complete, the RTP will offer basic, intermediate and advanced training sought by the state’s original equipment manufactures, or OEMs, in fields like material handling, welding and more, says Ed Castile, executive director of the state’s workforce training program, AIDT.
The third and final phase of the park, where construction started in 2008, is the 51, 000-square-foot integration/entrepreneurial and paint/dispense training center — at a projected total cost of $10 million.
The integration/entrepreneurial section will provide Alabama businesses with floor space to build and adapt automation for new and existing manufacturing processes, then train staff on equipment processes before moving equipment into a plant.
The paint/dispense training part of the facility offers opportunities for Alabama businesses to train in manual paint spraying techniques, as well as training in robotic systems that dispense sealants and adhesives onto parts that are being assembled. It also can be used for dispense process research and testing.
“Hopefully it will be completed by the end of March, beginning of April on the manual dispense application training, ” Castile says. “We had two inquiries for the integration and entrepreneurial areas and we get weekly requests on dispense training.”
The RTP also includes a robotic maintenance training center and a research and development center.
The research and development center houses four client suites. Each suite includes Internet access, phones, restrooms and environmental controls, along with raised access flooring in sectional panels, and a common high bay with two large roll-up doors that allow access to the 0.9-mile outdoor test track.
Clients pay a pro-rated share of utilities consumed. There’s no other cost.
Then there’s the robotic maintenance training center, a 60, 000-square-foot facility where technicians are trained in automation and robotics. Maroney says trainees get “hands-on” experience with the latest automation equipment.
It is staffed with trainers certified by OEM automation vendors and is also a southeastern U.S.-based training facility for several robotics manufacturers.
Castile says the park currently offers training on eight brands of robots and three brands of programmable logic controllers (PLCs) along with industrial safety.
In addition to the individual automation training, the RTP has developed an advanced automation line for advanced training in networking the various devices and automated equipment into one coordinated manufacturing line.
The 80-foot line includes seven robots, three PLCs, four Visions and automatic tools for calibrating, training and testing. The automated manufacturing line can be used for material handling, welding and paint/dispense, overhead crane use and forklift safety.
When showcasing the facility to visitors, “Sweet Home Alabama” plays when the line completes a cart of product. Maroney says he’s heard visitors from other countries say more than once, “What makes Alabama so sweet?” but he says they “get it” before they return home.
Even though he’s been there from the initial site work in 2008, Maroney still uses the phrase “very cool” when guiding visitors through the facility, noting that every area is unique.
Most of the major automation equipment vendors that are used by Alabama industries are partners with the RTP and have provided about $40 million in new automation and robotic technologies.
Maroney says he has a waiting list of vendors who want to put their technology in the center.
“We’ve had welding companies premiere new products here before it ever goes on the market, ” he says.
Maroney says a lot of people have the misconception that robots are taking jobs from people.
“It’s just not true, ” Maroney says. “Most people don’t recognize that it takes a person to program and a person to maintain the robots for the automated system to work, ” he says. “It’s a more advanced process and is making billions of dollars in this state. If not for the robotics at the Mercedes plant in Tuscaloosa, it would not be expanding right now.”
In January, he was a featured speaker on the topic at the International Economic Development Council.
The RTP’s role allows Alabama companies to provide no-cost training for its employees, giving the companies more money to invest in equipment to keep them competitive and provide more jobs, Maroney says.
Castile says businesses have been responsive and reported that the park’s training has been above their expectations.
“The successful training provided to Alabama’s workforce makes it one of the best skilled workforces (in industrial automation) in the world, ” Castile says. “The economic impact has been great for new and expanding companies in all types of industry using industrial automation and not just the automotive sector.”
“I see RTP continuing to evolve and focus on meeting the needs of Alabama businesses in the next five years, ” Castile says. “Any future expansion will be driven by the demands and needs of Alabama businesses.”
Wendy Reeves and Dennis Keim are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Huntsville.
Text by Wendy Reeves • Photos by Dennis Keim